“The rest of Africa, they disregarded me. Outsiders understood me, and they hooked me up”. These are the words of DJ Mujava talking about his international success in the third installment of Spoek Mathambo’s documentary, Future Sound of Mzansi. He travelled all over Europe and Australia in 2009 for his song “Township Funk“. South Africa didn’t realise how big a hit “Township Funk” was until Mujava started achieving international success and recognition for it.
South Africa’s house music scene is one of the largest in the world and our hip hop scene is the biggest it’s ever been. But for artists who don’t belong in these categories – who are considered “not mainstream enough” – it seems near impossible for them to break into the local market and have a sustainable career. Some of these artists end up becoming superstars overseas and then “blow up” in South Africa almost by default.
The list below showcases six South African musicians and bands that are more well-known overseas than at home:
1 John Wizards
John Wizards is a six-piece band from Cape Town created in 2010 by vocalist and guitarist, John Withers. The other members of the band are Raphael Segerman (drummer and percussionist), Jean Thierry Nzaramba (vocals), Geoffrey Brink (guitarist and keyboardist), Alex Montgomery (bassist and keyboardist) and guitarist Thomas Parker.
Their eclectic sound can be described as a fusion of reggae, afro pop, house and jazz. Their first album, John Wizards was released in 2013 and was voted eighth on The Guardian UK’s Top 10 Albums of the Year for 2013.
Internationally they’ve performed at Glastonbury (one of Europe’s biggest music festivals), Primavera in Barcelona, Midi Festival in France, Melt festival in Germany and Pukkelpop in Belgium. They were also featured on the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans of 2014. Locally, they made their debut at Rocking the Daisies last year and played at the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival (CTEMF) this year.
2 Alice Phoebe Lou
Alice grew up in Kommetjie, a small town in the Western Cape, and is now living in Germany. She is an independent blues/folk musician whose career started by performing in the streets of Berlin to make a living. Someone saw her playing in a park and asked if she could perform at a TED talk in 2014 in Berlin. The video of her performance went viral, and as the cliché goes, the rest is history.
She has roughly 22000 Facebook “likes”, with the majority of her audience coming from Europe. She played at the renowned SXSW festival in Texas earlier this year, and was featured on international music discovery site Pigeons and Planes. She’s also played at Ozora festival in Hungary and the Orange Blossom festival in Germany. The singer-songwriter has only recently started to make waves in South Africa as she opened for The Lumineers in Johannesburg last year. Her debut EP, Momentum, was released in 2014.
This five-piece electronic band is made up by musical mavericks Spoek Mathambo, Michael Buchanan, Andre Geldenhuys, Bhekisenzo Cele and Marvin Ramalepe (DJ Spoko). Their debut LP Free Love, released in March this year by Soundway Records, was featured on The Guardian UK’s Best Albums of 2015 So Far.
Fantasma’s genre-bending sound has been described by Dazed Digital as a “combination of traditional Zulu maskandi music with Shangaan electro, hip hop and electronica.” BBC Radio 6 regularly played their single “Basbizile” earlier this year. The group also performed on BBC Radio 4 and toured across Europe earlier this year. They played at London’s revered 100 Club, Band on the Wall in Manchester and in Paris.
4 Petite Noir
Half Congolese and half Angolan, Petite Noir is the alias of 24-year-old Yannick Ilunga. He is known for his break-out hit, “Till We Ghosts,” released in 2012 and “Chess” from his latest EP, The King of Anxiety released earlier this year.
He was born in Belgium but moved to Cape Town when he was six years old. He met Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) in Cape Town, and they discussed music and politics. The encounter was really influential in shaping his growth as an artist. “We were meant to bump into each other. He really is an activist and taught me a lot about what’s wrong with the world,” the singer told an interviewer from The Guardian UK. Noir even has his own “genre” of music dubbed noir-wave, which he describes as “new-wave with an African aesthetic”. He’s played at international festivals such as SXSW, Transmusicales in France and has performed with Solange a few times. She also included him in a compilation of experimental R&B released by her record label, Saint Heron.
5 DJ Spoko
DJ Spoko started producing at the age of 12, and is renowned as the protégé of Shangaan electro superstar, Nozinja. In the early 2000s, Spoko’s sound engineering skills were improved with the help of Nozinja. Spoko is also known as the originator of Bacardi house (indigenous to Pretoria), and his music is well-known in Pretoria (especially Atteridgeville where he grew up) and Johannesburg. In April 2013, Dazed Digital said “Spoko, Machepiz, Mujava and contemporaries like DJ Panyaza and Mugwanti are beloved in Atteridgeville, but treated more like skilled carpenters than rock stars”.
The DJ/Producer rocked the stage at the CTEMF this year, alongside Mujava, and completely blew away the minds of the audience. He also played at Electronic Africa (a showcase of African electronic artists) hosted by Red Bull Music Academy in New York and toured the United States playing at festivals like Summerstage Festival. He released his first album, War God, in 2014 and is due to play at Liverpool International Festival in August this year.
6 Spoek Mathambo
Spoek Mathambo (real name Nthato Mokgata), is a DJ, vocalist, rapper, illustrator and the driving force behind Fantasma. He started rapping at the age of 10, and was heavily influenced by American hip hop from the 90s. Originally from Jo’burg, he moved to Cape Town in 2003 where he was mentored by legendary Cape Town electronic producers Sibot and Markus Wormstorm.
He released his debut album Mshini Wam in 2010 and coined the term “Township Tech” to describe his eclectic style of music. Spoek has toured the USA, Portugal, Brazil, England, France, Germany, and many other countries. He has also played at SXSW in Texas, headlined at the prestigious XOYO club in London, and the World of Music Arts and Dance festival. He was also featured on the cover of The Fader magazine in New York in 2010 and in 2011 he signed a multi-album contract with Sub Pop, an independent record label based in Seattle.